Washington, D.C. (February 8, 2017)-- A new investigation by CityLab.com has found that major police departments around the country are spending millions on cellphone spy tools that can be used to build up massive surveillance databases— with few rules about what happens to the data they capture. The exclusive report from CityLab reporter George Joseph is online now.
Hundreds of documents obtained by CityLab from the country’s fifty largest police departments over the last ten months reveal that the majority of departments have quietly acquired at least one of two main types of digital-age spy tools: cell phone interception devices, used to covertly track or grab data from nearby mobile devices, and cell phone extraction devices, used to crack open locked phones that are in police possession and scoop out all sorts of private communications and content.
CityLab is the first to document the spread of these tools into urban police departments at a national scale, tracking over $4 million in equipment purchases. The site maps the cities who’ve bought military spy gear and lists the amounts police have spent from 2012-2016: from $765,000 in Fort Worth to $9,000 in Columbus.
Joseph writes that the proliferation of such devices, once largely limited to intelligence agencies like the NSA and the FBI, points to the rapid expansion of domestic law enforcement’s surveillance capacities. He writes: “With only a few clicks, police can now map out individuals’ social networks, communications’ timelines, and associates’ locations, based on the data captured by these surveillance tools.”